Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Selous GR - Christmas 2012

View of Selous River

After 2 years of being in Tanzania, we finally made the decision to go to the Selous Game Reserve over the Christmas period.  While the northern parks have always been our number 1 choice, this time around we didn’t weren’t taking leave between Christmas and New Year’s so could only take advantage of the long weekend just before Christmas – a total of 5 days off.  Looking at the Tanzania map, the choice was obvious – Selous game reserve – a place we’d never been but wanted to see.

The road to Selous GR

We’d heard that it was quite a slog to get there, since it’s to the South of Dar es Salaam, which has a much more under developed infrastructure than going North, and since this was the short rain season, it could get quite difficult to get to Selous.  But we decided to chance it anyway. 

So on the Saturday before Christmas, we packed up and headed out first thing in the morning to Selous.  Unlike trying to battle the Dar traffic north, getting out of the city was a breeze – only having to get through the bus stop at Mbagala before it was quiet all the way on the tar road to Kibiti - from there it was all untarred.  

We had directions to the place that we were staying just outside the park, so we followed that in our quest to get to Selous GR.  While sandy, the road wasn’t a problem and 6 short hours later (for 340 km!) we arrived at Selous River Camp just at lunch time. 

Because there’s a drama with 24 hour permits in all parks and reserves in Tanzania (read all about how permits work here) we decided not to head into the park immediately, but rather to chill out at the camp and maybe take a river cruise in the afternoon – then heading into the park the next morning. 

African Openbill
In the end, we got a bit lazy, and spent the afternoon chilling out in the lounge, while other tourists braved the localized downpour on the boat cruising up and down the Rufiji river.  We did a quick drive up to the gate, only a few kms away, and worked out the procedures to check into the reserve, and got a few tips on what was around.  

Mtemere Gate
One of the most frustrating things to us about Selous is that you need to take an armed ranger with you if you plan to camp.  If that is not enough, the only campsite in the park is about a day’s drive from the gate, and about half a day’s drive to the good game viewing area.  

Selous River Camp
The combination of those factors doesn’t make it an attractive option, though we’ve heard the camp is pretty good.  So instead, we stayed just outside the park at one of the only places that allow rooftents.  Although small, we were the only campers for our 3 night stay so it was fine for us.  

Our campsite for 3 days
We were concerned about the heat, humidity and mosquitoes at night, but solved the problem by opening up the tent at night completely and installing a mossie net – worked like a dream! 

Solving the problem of mosquitoes - net in the rooftent
The only problem with staying outside the park is that you need to go through the whole checking in process every day which takes away precious game time!

One of our rarest sightings - African Civet
Our 1st morning at Selous, and we were rewarded with one of our rarest sighting in the bush – an African Civet! After stopping to do the checking in, which takes a while, we started our drive to the Rufiji river.  

And out of nowhere, a civet ran out into our line of sight.  This was our first live civet that we’d ever seen, and he didn’t disappear at once, giving us the opportunity to get a couple of shots before he headed into the bush. An absolute highlight of the trip for us.

White-fronted bee-eater
The main drive of the park is centered along the river; the unfortunate part is that you need to drive through some forest to get to the river. But the forest is so thick that you can hardly see into it, making spotting animals really difficult.  Indeed, there were reports of wild dogs in the area for the 1st 2 days we were there, but we just couldn’t find them thanks to the thick forest. 

Once you get out of the forest, the drive meanders at the river’s edge, which is pretty spectacular.  While we went in the wet, and all the animals were dispersed, we could imagine the hordes of animals heading down to the water’s edge to drink – we definitely plan to go back in the dry.  And one of the big advantages of Selous is that it is not a national park, and so they allow you to drive off road.

That’s how we spotted our first lion of the trip on day 2.  We’d been driving around when we stopped to chat to one of the guides, and that’s when we found out that you could drive up to 30m off road if there was a sighting of one of the big 5, or the wild dogs, which is what Selous is famous for.

Lioness in shade
Not long after that, we spotted some cars going off road, and knowing that it had to be a top sighting, followed them – our first off road driving ;)  And sure enough, a couple of lionesses were under a tree, surrounded by a throng of safari vehicles… 

Knob-billed ducks
We were impressed that the cars kept their distance, and didn’t seem to be disturbing the lionesses at all, who just lay in the shade resting.  We chilled out with the lions for a while, amused by some of the conversations going on in the other cars – mostly American or British tourists on their first safari… 

One woman even asked if she could get out and closer to take a photo with the lions… The incredulous and panic stricken “No!” from the guide made me think that he may be in for a tough time with his guests who had no concept of wild animals ;)

Mating lions
Not long after we’d left the lions and had lunch, we found another a couple of lions – this time a mating pair.  After there being quite a few cars at the 1st sighting, it was refreshing to have only one other car around, and we spent almost an hour with the mating couple before leaving them to their business in the heat of the day.

Not happy with us watching the "deed"
The following day we found the same mating pair after doing a bit of off road driving again.  This time they had the rest of the pride nearby – 4 young males all under a tree sleeping away while their brother did his bit to increase the lion population!

The birds are pretty impressive in Selous, and we counted plenty in the time we were there.  One of the most amusing is the Black Egret.  His fishing method is to use his wings like an umbrella, shading the water below and waiting for the fish to swim under the “umbrella” before spearing one.  The other amusing bird is the African Jacana, otherwise known as the Lily trotter, because his massive “toes” allow him to walk on the lilies

We soon came to realize that Selous is a dry season park.  Once it starts to rain, as it does over December, the animals no longer need to drink at the river, so the game disperses and there needs to be more driving around to find animals.  But the biggest obstacles to the park in the wet are the main roads.  

While the roads near the river are sandy and easily negotiated, patches and the some of the main tracks are black cotton soil.  These are fine in the dry, but add a bit of water on them and they become so slippery you can hardly drive on them! 

Yellow-billed stork
One morning we decided to take the main road and head quite far into the park.  The road was no problem until it started to rain.  After driving in the rain, the road started to get a bit slippery and we decided to turn back.  And that’s where the fun (!) started… 

African spoonbill
Where previously the road had been fine in the dry, it was now so wet that we could hardly keep the 4WD on the road – the back kept sliding out despite it being engaged on low range.  We crawled along trying to keep the car straight, and had a few close encounters but managed to keep the car on the road. 

But eventually our luck ran out and the whole back of the car slid out into the ditch on the side of the road.  We were well and truly stuck – the tyres were caked in black cotton soil and had no traction to get out!  It was a real dilemma because we hadn’t seen anyone on the road the whole morning.  Short of a miracle like a whole bunch of people rocking up to pull us out, we were going to have to wait it out – wait for the rain to stop and then for the road to dry out… I had visions of us sleeping there the night!

But amazingly, exactly what we needed rocked up…  Suddenly, heading towards us was a game warden pickup truck loaded with game wardens… and boxes of tomatoes and bicycles and a whole bunch of other things!  We couldn’t believe it – precisely what we needed had come to our rescue.  They were slipping and sliding along the road, but with the thinner tyres and the driver no doubt used to black cotton soil driving, they were staying on the road.

Elephant sizing us up
After a quick chat, a bunch of the guys got off the back of the pickup armed with spades and started getting the mud off the tyres.  Once that was done, about 6 of them stood at the back of the car, and following instructions from one of the guys actually pushed the back left of the heavily loaded Landcruiser slowly back onto the road!  We are eternally grateful to them for getting us out of that trouble, otherwise we might still be there!

The rest of the trip we made sure that we stayed off that main road as soon as it started raining ;)
We could see how badly the road could become based on some of the bogs – definitely not a place to hang around in the long wet season between March and June.  In fact, all the lodges actually close during that time, and we could see why!  Clearly you don’t want your dollar paying tourists spending more time pushing the safari vehicle than in it watching the game!

Because we were traveling over Christmas we decided we needed to do something special for Christmas eve.  That meant a braai, instead of normal quick meals…

Christmas braai in the heat
It was probably a mistake though – the place is SO hot, that when we finally managed to get the fire going, we couldn’t stand anywhere near it because of the heat!  Despite taking a cold shower straight after coming back from the park, as soon as you got out the shower, you were sweating again, so didn’t help starting a fire as well J

Still, it was great to finally have a braai in the bush again, and we thoroughly enjoyed it!  And were rewarded while we were cooking with a bush baby coming close up to our camp to check out what we were doing. In fact one of them tried to get into the tent in the course of the evening and Dru had to chase him off ;)

Overall, not a bad way to spend Christmas eve!

Instead of heading straight to the river on our final day, we decided to go inland, even though the wardens at the gate had warned us that we would get lost.  We decided to give it a go anyway (even without a GPS like we are) and just kept a tab on the turns we were taking.

And we were rewarded pretty soon after turning off.  We spotted a male lion hidden in the grass, and stopped to watch him.  He soon moved off, but we decided to keep with him in the hope that he may do something.

Running zebra
Of course as male lions are, he did nothing except move to another bush and flop down out of sight.  But we did find that there were 3 other lionesses with him, who seemed a bit more active.  And the 2 youngsters soon entertained us, by deciding to climb up one of the trees. 

Young lion in tree

We haven’t seen tree-climbing lions often so this was a real bonus for us.  We spent a long time with the 2, first up then down the tree.  There were even a couple of buffalo nearby, which we thought they may attempt to hunt, but that didn’t work, and the buffalo soon moved off.  Still it was great to spend some time with the lions that we had found, especially since we saw them all on our own – always a bonus!

Northern carmine bee-eater

After 4 nights, we headed back to Dar on Boxing Day as we both had to be back at work on the 27th.  Because we weren’t going into the park before driving back, we decided to have a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant first.  There we met Katie – it’s her and husband Kenny that have built the place up over the last 8 years.

Elephants going down to drink at the river
After a pleasant conversation, we settled the bill and headed out.  Always looking to see if there are other good places around, we stopped at the other camps on the way, but nothing we felt was as good for campers as Selous River camp.

African fish eagle
Finally away from the river, we slowly drove back to Dar. While we didn’t see as much as we would in the northern parks, we know that this could change completely in the dry season when the animals need to go to the river to drink.  

We enjoyed the remoteness of it all as well – compared to the more well known parks, there are hardly any cars there, which is pretty cool.

On our way back, we were already planning the next trip to Selous!

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